"Piecemeal Solutions" for Africa

That’s the phrase William Easterly uses in an opinion piece in today’s New York Times.

He’s right, sweeping programs aren’t going to work.  Not for development in Africa, at least.

When we were Peace Corps Volunteers in Togo in the late 1980s, a friend and I wrote a pamphlet about development projects and their problems that we wanted to see made available to other volunteers.  Peace Corps turned it down; we were saying that money wasn’t the answer, and neither were foreign skills.  The way to help Africa develop, we said, was simply to assist home-grown projects and, if skills were needed, to find locals with them (and they do exist).  Peace Corps didn’t want to hear that.

In fact, no one wanted to hear that, not then, at least.  Small Is Beautiful (E.F. Schumacher’s influential book) was on the outs, for the moment.  And we were supposed to be bringing our ‘great’ western skills to Africa, not simply helping out with what the locals were already doing.

It wasn’t until nearly three years ago that we finally got a shortened version of the piece published, and only on the web.  In the meantime, fortunately, there had been a shift in attitude amongst aid workers and planners back to recognition that the large projects had, for the most part, been a disaster for Africa, increasing debt and the distance between the rich and the poor.

Though debt for projects that did few people any good does need to be reduced and though the sentiments of Live 8 are laudable, no increase in aid from Europe and America, no grand program from abroad, is going to help Africa improve (at best, things like debt relief will only keep them from getting worse).  It’s the Africans themselves who are going to have to do that.  They can–and will–but only if we let them (mainly by getting out of the way) and support them (and not merely the few rich at the top).

Piecemeal.  Small projects seeded through local interest and skills, fertilized (perhaps) by outsiders but not planted by them.  These, not grandiose schemes, are what will help.

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